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This right here:

A picture depicting what looks like 2 green antennas, with some distance between each. The distinct shape and color make it so you might think of aliens antennas the instant you see them.

When I show you "this", what is the first thing that comes to mind? That is correct! That's an alien! Not a bee or a butterfly but specifically an alien. But why is that? Where did this come from? Who started it?

Right off the bat, the wiki page for little green men mentions "sometimes with antennae on their heads". It's a feature that's prominent in depictions of aliens everywhere (even in halloween costumes), yet somehow nobody questions its origins. The closest thing I've managed to find after some digging was Frank R Paul's martian man from Fantastic Adventures which had moth-like antennae, however the similarities end there.

I'd be delighted to find out how history shaped the modern depiction of antennaed aliens.

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    I can't definitively tell you how this entered popular culture, but it wasn't from mainstream Ufology. Antennae weren't typically featured in contactee or abductee literature. I've got quite a large personal collection of literature ranging from early to modern, and the only time that I recall aliens having antennae was where the aliens were insectoid in nature. Which was a small fraction of cases. They also weren't a common feature in early B-movies which tended to have near perfect humanoid aliens of inhuman monsters. Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 19:39
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    Dates back to at least the 1950s; abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=31175568956
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 19:53
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    "When I show you "this", what is the first thing that comes to mind? That is correct! That's an alien!" - actually, the first thing that came to my mind was a pair of cartoon worms poking out of the ground and looking at each other. Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 2:56
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    Here are some depictions of Great Old Ones from 1936.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 16:33
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    I suspect the helmet aliens owe a little to this en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_hat "It was introduced in early 1949 for $7.95 as the "Man-from-Mars Radio Hat." With the two prominent vacuum tubes. Personally I suspect the modern antenna aliens are a synergy between radio antennas of space men and insect motifs. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 19:26

6 Answers 6

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The John Carter stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, starting with A Princess of Mars (1912/1917 in different formats), feature Green Martians which are giant, roughly humanoid beings who hatch from eggs, with six limbs, side-mounted eyes, and ears positioned as small antennae on their foreheads. I'm not sure whether any explicit comparison is made in the text, but descriptions of them have a definite insectoid, preying-mantis-esque tenor to me. Although they're mammalian and humanlike in appearance (aside from the listed differences), they seem a very plausible origin for "green, insectoid, antennae'd" as a stock alien 'look' that later works would further amplify until you end up with the likes of Greedo. Burroughs was an influence on many later prominent writers.

The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens.

The Encyclopedia Barsoomia wiki gives some images:

Newly-hatched Green Martians An adult Green Martian The character Tars Tarkas

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I can only double down on the concept that antennae were likely a go-to touch for aliens from A) the invention of radio and B) bugs have antennae, so that makes humanoids with antennae extra weird.

This first example (A Pictorial History of Science Fiction by David Kyle) is a shot of a 1927 cover of Amazing Stories. But I believe the Selenites were specifically described as insectoid-ish.

enter image description here

After that, the 1959 cover of Future Science Fiction. Following is the first appearance of Chameleon Boy in Action Comics #267 circa 1960. Earlier examples exist on this page, but I present these to support the idea by now antennae are likely so cliche that aliens only had them in parody-comedy art and in comic books for kids.

enter image description here

enter image description here

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I'm going with "My Favorite Martian" as a starting point.

Martin, the protagonist of "My Favorite Martian"

This aired on September 29, 1963. The Antenna were popular enough to inspire some merch:

My Favorite Martian Hat

And one of the most beloved antennaed alien characters came shortly later, on October 29, 1965.

The Great Gazoo

While this may or may not be the earliest examples, I'm arguing that these were embedded in pop-culture sufficiently to garner popularity.

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    Strange aside point, why did everyone refer to Martians specifically for so long?
    – Turbo
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 20:01
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    It's the fault of H.G. Wells. His War of the World gave the idea that there was intelligent life on Mars full traction in the public eye. Mars, after all, had those "canali" Schiaparelli first remarked on and others took off with -- suggesting immense public works projects. Then there was Burroughs with his Barsoom books.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 20:22
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    Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) has antennaed aliens.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 20:59
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    The trope was around in at least 1951, if not earlier - abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=31175568956
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 21:14
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    I didn't find any pictures of the Great Gazoo from the Flintstones without his helmet. So to me it seems far more likely that the antenna are part of his helmet instead of being part of his body sticking through the helmet. Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 6:26
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There are aliens with antennas in this cartoon by Frosty on p. 21 of Amazing Stories, October 1956, available from the Internet Archive:

enter image description here

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    And on this book from 1951; abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=31175568956
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 11:41
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    And this December 1951 Galaxy cover: isfdb.org/wiki/images/c/ce/GALDEC1951.jpg
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 11:58
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    Also a great example of why 1956 isn't a particularly early specimen
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 12:00
  • I'd also argue that the cover of a bestselling book (or magazine cover) is far more likely to have popularised this trope than an interior comic that only a few people would have read.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 12:01
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    I think all these examples merely show that aliens with antennae were already a popular cliche by 1950. And I'd agree that my answer is not a very good one. I'd give it a downvote but I can't vote on my own answers.
    – user14111
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 12:56
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Even though the Slan are mutant humans, in 1941 the author showed their differentness via antennae.

I would just mention that given that multiple species on Earth have antennae but they are exclusively on invertebrates, that is, very different than mammals, antennae seem like a natural way to show that the creature is very different than human, even if as in My Favorite Martian, the creature looks just like the character actor Ray Walston.

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In My Favorite Martian, September 29, 1963 to May 1, 1966, Uncle Martin's antennae might be either biological or mechanical, making him a cyborg with implanted mechanical parts, as far as I can tell from the photo in Turbo's answer and other images I found online. If antennae are cyborg parts opinions may vary whether Martians should be counted as a species with antennae.

In the The Outer Limits episode "The Zanti Misfits", December 30, 1963, the Zanti are about the size of rats, have six limbs, look like ants except for their human-like faces, and have antennae. They definitely count as aliens with antennae. But if being humanoid with antennae is necessary for the stock image of an alien with antennae, the Zanti don't count.

As far as I can tell, the Marians in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, December 14, 1964, are never seen without their helmets. Thus their antennae seems likely to be parts of their helmets. It would be hard for people with antennae on their heads to put on helmets, trying to fit their antennae through the antenna holes in their helmets.

The Doctor Who tv serial "The Web Planet", 13 February 1965 to 20 March 1965, featured two insect like alien species, the butterfly like Menoptra and the ant like Zarbi. From online photos the Zarbi don't have antennae. The Menoptra do have clearly biological antennae and have a roughly humanoid body plan, except for their gauzy wings. So they may or may not count as the stock image of roughly humanoid aliens with antennea.

The Great Gazoo in The Flintstones first appeared in "The Great Gazoo" October 29, 1965. I haven't been able to find pictures of him without his helmet, so I suspect the antennae are part of his helmet.

I think that the first humanoid aliens with clearly biological antennae in movies and tv might have been Andorians in Star Trek, first seen in "Journey to Babel" November 17, 1967.

In the British film Quatermass and the Pit also known as Five million Years to Earth released September 29, 1967, the aliens have biological antennae, but they are insectoid, resembling grasshoppers. I don't know if they fit the image of humanoid aliens with with antennae.

The movie is based on the BBC tv serial Quatermass and the Pit, 22 December 1958 to 26 January 1959. According to Wikpedia:

Inside, Quatermass and the others find the remains of insect-like aliens resembling giant three-legged locusts, with stubby antennae on their heads giving the impression of horns.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quatermass_and_the_Pit#Plot

So if the aliens from the BBC serial fit the requirements, they are the earliest movie or tv example so far. If they are not humanoid enough, the Andorians might be the first example.

I have seen many of the 1950s science fiction movies and I don't remember any with aliens with antennae.

So according to what I remember and can find out, the earliest aliens in movies and tv with antennae date to the 1950s or 1960s. The first aliens with antennae in such other media as comic books and science fiction literature might be much earlier.

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    So somewhat like why vikings are depicted to have horned helmets, because it is a prop to allow an audience to easily recognize what they see? Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 9:54
  • @ThorbjørnRavnAndersen I think we can blame 19th Century opera costume designers for that one.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 15:20
  • @Spencer and 20th century ones for this one. Commented Jan 29, 2023 at 15:28

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